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Saturday, March 6, 1999 Published at 00:46 GMT


Education 'must overcome inequality'

Malcolm Wicks says families need to be more involved in schools

By Sean Coughlan

New Labour will have failed if it does not break the link between deprivation and poor educational performance, according to the chairman of the House of Commons Education Select Committee.

Malcolm Wicks, a Labour MP, says "education must be the engine of equality", allowing children from all backgrounds an opportunity to reach their full potential.

But he warned that at present there was still the "stubborn perseverance of inequality", which meant that educational achievements "reflected social inequalities, rather than challenged them".

[ image: Mr Wicks wants children to have an equal chance of succeeding]
Mr Wicks wants children to have an equal chance of succeeding
"It is extraordinary that at the end of the 20th century you can take a new-born baby and predict with some accuracy its future level of educational achievement, purely on the basis of the economic circumstances of its family," Mr Wicks said in an interview with BBC News Online.

Mr Wicks says the government had channelled extra funds into education, but that if the gap between the under-achieving children of the poor and the successfully performing wealthy had not been bridged in a decade, then the government would have failed.

Parents and families have a key role to play in improving educational standards, he believes, as their attitudes shape the expectations and behaviour of pupils in school.

"Families are the most under-developed resource in education," he says, calling for them to be involved more fully in the life of the school.

Learning difficulties

Parents who might have had bad experiences of school or who lack confidence in approaching teachers need to be encouraged to become more involved in their children's education, argues Mr Wicks.

Schools could also help parents with their own learning difficulties, such as giving assistance to those struggling with reading and writing.

But he says there are no easy solutions for reaching out to families which have previously shown little interest in education or to overcome longstanding educational failure.

"What would it take to really turn around under-achieving inner-city schools? Not just to make them acceptable or average, but to make them excellent. It might mean ratios of 10 pupils per teacher - but if that's good enough for Eton or wherever, then why isn't that good enough for everyone?"

Governors' role

Currently occupying a role deep in the heart of Westminster, three decades ago Malcolm Wicks was more likely to be found occupying buildings, as a radical student at the London School of Economics.

As such, he says that he does not want to be "a middle-class bore" about the current spate of student occupations over tuition fees. But he shares the government's position that an increase in participation in higher education means there is a need for a new approach to funding.

In steering the committee of MPs, Mr Wicks says he wants to be more imaginative in how subjects are investigated.

The committee is planning to investigate the future role of school governors and Mr Wicks wants to take evidence from a far wider sample of people than usual, including listening to the opinions of schoolchildren.

Attention will be turned to the parliamentary committee in the forthcoming weeks, when it publishes a report on the workings of the Office for Standards in Education.

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